Telling stories through skin art

Ashley Dootson receives an Oak Cliff tattoo at Electric Eye Tattoo in Dallas, TX, which is owned and operated by Caleb Barnard and Marie Sena: Photo by Danny Fulgencio Photo by Danny Fulgencio © Danny Fulgencio
Ashley Dootson receives an Oak Cliff tattoo at Electric Eye Tattoo: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Everyone has a story to tell, and most people offer hints of their personal history in the way they dress, their home décor, the car they drive or the way they carry themselves. For tattoo enthusiasts, it’s all in the ink: The portrait of a favorite pet, the rose for a beloved grandmother, the names of one’s children. Even the regrettable gecko tattoo from spring break ’96 has a story to tell. “The tattoo culture in Dallas is very strong,” says artist Maria Sena, who recently opened Electric Eye, a tattoo studio in Oak Cliff with her partner, Caleb Barnard. “People in Dallas, they’re like collectors.” Some of us hang paintings on the wall; some prefer art on skin.

Arts Magnet mafia

Tattoo artist Stephanie Adelina worked in her home studio in Dallas, TX on June 6, 2015. Photo by Danny Fulgencio © Danny Fulgencio
Tattoo artist Stephanie Adelina worked in her home studio: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Sometimes older people don’t appreciate tattoos, but Stephanie Adelina has one that
often catches the attention of the Greatest Generation.

The tattoo artist got a red Pegasus on her upper arm from her mentor when she was an apprentice. She wanted it to show her hometown pride, and she later learned the profundity of Dallas’ red-neon Pegasus. “I didn’t know this story when I got the tattoo,” she says. “But apparently, when soldiers were returning from World War II, they would see that red dot in the skyline, and they knew they were home.”

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Adelina’s career as a tattoo artist has taken her all over the world, but she always represents Dallas with that striking tattoo.

The Oak Cliff native started her tattooing career in the worst way.

“I fell into tattooing right when ‘Miami Ink’ got really popular,” she says, referring to the seminal reality TV show about tattooing.

She was 19 and had just dropped out of art school in Canada after realizing her Arts Magnet education had taught her well enough.

She was such a talented painter that her then-boyfriend encouraged her to tattoo him. So she ordered a tattooing gun online, “like you should never do,” she says.

Tattoo artist Stephanie Adelina worked in her home studio in Dallas, TX on June 6, 2015. Photo by Danny Fulgencio © Danny Fulgencio
Tattoo artist Stephanie Adelina worked in her home studio: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

But that was the start of a globetrotting career.

She practiced on friends and family until Deep Ellum-based artist Jacob Lopez gave her an apprenticeship based on her painting portfolio. It didn’t take her long to get a feel for the craft of buzzing art onto skin.

In fact, she prides herself in having a light touch.

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“Having a gentle approach is what I’m about,” she says.

In 2012, Adelina applied for an Australian work permit. She flew over and got a job at the Australia minimum wage of about $18 an hour, selling orthopedic shoes to old ladies, she says. On her days off, she tattooed.

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She flew to Malaysia and then India where she worked as a guest artist at what she says is the country’s best tattoo shop, Devilz Tattoo, in Dehli.

“I was supposed to be there for a week, and I stayed two months,” she says.

She sometimes worked 12-hour days in the Dehli shop and would make about $100 for the whole day (compared to $125 per hour that she charges at her live/work studio in Deep Ellum).

Even though she didn’t seek out a spiritual experience in India, Adelina says, she found one anyway. It’s her favorite country in the world, she says. And a tattooing pal from the Delhi shop is expected to fly over later this year as a guest artist in her studio.

Adelina’s tattooing style is the same as her painting style. Her tattoos are bright and vivid. She recently tattooed realistic images of tomatoes and onions on a chef’s arm. And she has been doing tattoos that look like watercolor paintings.

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Tattooing a way to be well paid as an artist and collaborate on artwork that is intensely personal to the artist and client, she says.

“I’m really just an art-school nerd who kind of fell into this,” she says.

She credits Arts Magnet for a stellar arts education, and she continues to work closely with the school. In June, she helped chaperone Arts Magnet students on an art tour of Italy.

“I love that school, and I owe everything to it,” she says. “It’s like the Marines; they break you down and build you back up. It was so hard and such an amazing school.”

Upon returning to the states, Adelina figured she would move somewhere else — New York, Los Angeles, who knows? But when she arrived in Dallas, she felt at home.

Adelina’s wanderlust runs deep, but traveling made her realize where her home truly is. She and her roommate, artist Samantha A. McCurdy, are working on renovating the first floor of their Deep Ellum building. But Adelina, now 27, says she’d like to buy a house someday in Beckley Club Estates, where her mom lives.

“Oak Cliff is home,” she says. “Plus, the Mexican food. I missed it so much.”

Rep your ’hood

 Tattoo artists Caleb Barnard and Marie Sena opened Electric Eye tattoo studio in a tiny space at the rear of Jefferson Tower earlier this summer: Photo by Danny Fulgenico
Tattoo artists Caleb Barnard and Marie Sena opened Electric Eye tattoo studio in a tiny space at the rear of Jefferson Tower earlier this summer: Photo by Danny Fulgenico
 Below: Oak Cliff neighbor Ashley Dootson has steadily covered her skin with art over the past 10 years or so: Photo by Danny Fulgenico
Below: Oak Cliff neighbor Ashley Dootson has steadily covered her skin with art over the past 10 years or so: Photo by Danny Fulgenico

Ashley Dootson knew she wanted to be tattooed from the time she was a little kid.

Her mother had a heavily tattooed friend, and young Ashley was obsessed with him.

She got her first tattoo, a little star on her foot, with her mom’s permission at 17.

“She thought I would hate it,” Dootson says. But it opened the door to a lifelong commitment to tattoos and now, at 34, Dootson’s skin is covered in art.

The hairstylist waited until her late 20s, after her career had been established, before she started getting highly visible tattoos. All of her ink can be covered by long sleeves and pants.

“It’s funny when my clients meet me in the winter, and then they see me in summer, and they’re like, ‘Oh…’ ” she says.

She has tattoos for the people who inspire her, like her grandmother, Peg Bundy and Dolly Parton. She has portraits of her dogs. She has tattoos purely for beauty, such as the black-and-white roses on her right knee. She collects tattoos from artists she admires — Jeff Brown, Will Card and Sal Trevino among them.

She has a couple of “dumb” tattoos from her younger days, and one is the result of letting an aspiring tattoo artist practice on her.

But they’re all a part of her, she says.

“They’re beautiful to look at,” she says. “It’s art you can wear. I feel prettier with them.”

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks tattoos are beautiful, and rude strangers have let Dootson know what they think. A man once asked her why she would want to make herself look ugly, for example. Sometimes strangers touch her because of her tattoos. Once, a man tried to lift up her skirt in Kroger to see more of her tattoos. She argued with him and fled the store without buying anything.

“Sometimes I feel like a novelty,” she says. “People are always very curious.”

Dootson has “817” tattooed on one arm because she’s from Bedford. But she has worked in Oak Cliff for seven years, and she bought a house here two years ago.

So she decided to get “Oak Cliff” on her foot. Artist Caleb Barnard at Electric Eye had a friend draw the stencil in Venice Beach-style lettering, and he tattooed it.

Barnard and his partner, Marie Sena, opened their tiny shop at the rear of Jefferson Tower in June. Barnard has been tattooing for about 16 years and Sena for about 10. The couple lives in East Dallas, but they both worked at Saints and Sinners in the Bishop Arts District for several years.

“We love the neighborhood, and we love this building,” Sena says. “It’s so cool to be part of this historic building and what’s going on over here.”

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Oswald was here

Julie McCullough at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Julie McCullough at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Julie McCullough, Samuel Stuard and Lindsay Nacarrato at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Julie McCullough, Samuel Stuard and Lindsay Nacarrato at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Julie McCullough wanted a Texas tattoo.

When the fashion designer had a storefront in Bishop Arts, she noticed her friend who worked at Hunky’s, Samuel Stuard, had the Texas Theatre marquee on one arm.

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The historic theater/art-house cinema/dive bar had become her favorite neighborhood hangout.

So she and her Texas Theatre buddy, Lindsay Naccarato, decided to get Texas Theatre tattoos too. They hired Ejay, aka Ernesto Bernal, at Saints and Sinners in Bishop Arts for the work.

“He’s incredibly talented,” Naccarato says.

She has about 50 tattoos, and Ejay did most of them.

Naccarato, an emergency room nurse, was 20 when she got her first tattoo, but she’s acquired most of her ink in the past five years or so. Although she has to cover them up at work, they make her happy.

“I just like the way they make me look at myself and the way they make me feel about myself,” she says. “I think they’re remarkably pretty, and I just like having them.”

She is inspired by paintings. Usually, she finds a painting she loves and brings a photo of it to her artist for him to interpret.

Lindsay Nacarrato’s Texas Theatre tattoo: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Lindsay Nacarrato’s Texas Theatre tattoo: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Some tattoo enthusiasts collect tattoos from many artists. But Naccarato chooses to stay with one artist because of his talent and intensity. He’s always as excited to do a tattoo as she is to receive it, she says.

“It’s a relationship with that person,” she says. “I want you to want to do this, and I want you to be proud of what you’ve done. I love that he’s excited to do them.”

Her Texas Theatre tattoo is in color and represents the current version of the sign. Stuard has the sign and the marquee announcing “Debbie Does Dallas.” And McCullough has an older version of the sign in black-and-white.

They’re the same but different.

Julie McCullough at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio

McCullough says she got a couple of regrettable tattoos when she was 18, and then she started getting nice, expensive tattoos around age 35.

She has a pair of buttons on her wrists; scissors, a sewing needle and thread on her upper arm; and opposite her Texas Theatre tattoo, an outline of Michigan, her home state. She and Naccarato both have lace designs on their shoulders.

“I encourage people to wait until they’re old (to be tattooed),” McCullough says. “Most of my best decisions did not come at 18.”

Samuel Stuard at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Samuel Stuard at the Texas Theatre: Photo by Danny Fulgencio
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